Now that the bracket is official and fans are furiously scribbling away on the chance at fame, the time is right to take a closer look at some of the NCAA tournament's biggest Cinderellas this year, and their polar opposites—the teams on upset alert.
There is no exact science behind pegging either category down with consistent success. For Cinderellas, it makes sense to look at how mid to low seeds performed against top teams. For potential premature exits from the grand stage, one simply has to look at higher seeds that are on the downswing or that have failed under pressure.
Speaking of pressure, don't fill out a bracket in actual ink until you're confident about some of its iffier teams in both categories. They are as follows, along with my prediction for each.
Cinderellas to Watch
An experienced team with several senior starters is never one to sleep on come tournament time—regardless of seed, RPI or any other statistics that get tossed around.
Saint Joseph's understands that experience trumps all, as Ronald Roberts told reporters after a 67-48 A-10 semifinal victory over St. Bonaventure, per Rachel Cohen of the Associated Press:
"Since we've been here, we've never been this close," said forward Ronald Roberts, the third of Saint Joseph's senior starters. "We've got to seize the moment tomorrow."
Yes, the Hawks' overall tournament record is just 18-23, and yes, it has been to only one Final Four.
But senior Langston Galloway averages more than 17 points per game, and any player is capable of stepping up big on a given night—as captured by senior Halil Kanacevic's 26 points in the semifinal victory despite his season average being just north of 10.
With a field-goal percentage that ranks just outside the top 50 and a strong, experienced defense, the Hawks have what it takes to make a few non-believers angry this year.
Prediction: Lose in Sweet 16
The Xavier Musketeers have lost just enough this year to earn Cinderella status.
After it bowed out in the semifinals of the Big East tournament against Creighton, Xavier has something to prove. The numbers speak for themselves. Xavier ranks in the top 40 in terms of field-goal percentage and scores more than 72 points per game while ranking highly in assists to boot.
Not many teams have an answer for Semaj Christon, and supplemental pieces like Isaiah Philmore and Justin Martin will make life hard on higher-ranked teams.
Major wins over the likes of Creighton and Cincinnati during the regular season and a 9-8 record against the top 100 with a top-25 strength of schedule does much to suggest that the Musketeers can run with any team in the nation in a do-or-die scenario.
With a star like Christon leading the attack, fans can feel comfortable inking in Xavier for a couple wins—if not more.
Prediction: Lose in Elite Eight
Teams on Upset Alert
Sorry, but any team that can do this qualifies as a team on upset alert:
ESPN's Rich Cimini put it best:
If Syracuse's goal was to lower expectations before the NCAA tournament, it succeeded. #SnapOutOfIt— Rich Cimini (@RichCimini) March 15, 2014
Look, Syracuse had a great season right up until the end, where the Orange dropped four of their last five before that ridiculous finish in a 66-63 loss to North Carolina State in the ACC tournament quarterfinal.
The Orange's habit of living on the edge finally caught up to them in the form of five offensive rebounds, four missed three-pointers and a dunk to get eliminated from a tournament they very well could have won.
Will lightning strike twice, or is the crazy out of Syracuse's system just in time? The anemic behavior of the offense over the course of the past month suggests the Orange are a team to seriously avoid in brackets.
Prediction: Lose in round of 64
On paper, Ohio State's record is great.
The Buckeyes started off hot, winning their first 15 games of the season. Near the tail end of the season, they have been anything but and stumble into the NCAA tournament with serious question marks.
As Jon Rothstein of CBS Sports writes, the Buckeyes are a bit unpredictable:
My theory on Ohio State is the same as its been for the last month. Could lose in Round of 64. Could go to the Sweet 16.— Jon Rothstein (@JonRothstein) March 15, 2014
That's not exactly something that should comfort fans.
Ohio State can be forgiven for falling to No. 8 Michigan 72-69 in the Big Ten tournament semifinal. Fine. But look at the three games before it.
On March 9, the Buckeyes hardly slipped past No. 22 Michigan State, 69-67. Against Purdue, the cellar dwellers of the conference, Ohio State hardly escaped with a 63-61 victory at home. They followed that up with a 71-67 victory over Nebraska.
This is a team that was swept by Penn State in Big Ten play—a Nittany Lions team that finished 6-12 in the conference and 15-17 overall. Aaron Craft and the Buckeyes are simply not reliable enough, and a hungry lesser seed will feast come tournament time if coach Thad Matta does not figure out the problem.
Prediction: Lose in round of 32